Written By Patricia Miller, Karen Wall, Colleen Platt and Tom Davis
A massive brush fire scorched hundreds of acres of land in Berkeley Township in Ocean County, N.J. Thursday, evacuating neighborhoods and sending families and children to shelter.
Homes and other buildings from Northern to Maryland streets were evacuated once the raging, wind-aided blaze was reported around 12:30 p.m.
The fire was 30 percent contained left blackened pine trees and barren land over a 307-acre space. Residents of the Pinewald section were to expect smoke conditions into the night, with a wind shift in the morning.
Fire crews are standing near residential areas, ready to respond to any homes that may be in danger.
State Police and other law enforcement authorities are on scene to "advise and assist" fire-weary residents who can't get back to their homes.
Residents of Continental Avenue and surrounding streets also have been evacuated because of back fires and shifting winds.
Toms River Intermediate South dismissed its students early, and the children were sent to the Pine Belt Arena for shelter. Berkeley schools announced they would not be busing children home immediately because of the fire.
State Police forbid people from getting anywhere near the 307-acre fire, telling people: "The wind can switch at any minute."
"Public safety is our first priority," a state trooper told a reporter.
Massive plumes of smoke filled the air Thursday afternoon while sirens blared. An unidentified woman running down Northern Boulevard, with a cell phone in her ear, yelled at a crowd: "Whose house is on fire?"Central Regional is holding students who live on Grand Central, Western and Northern boulevards at the high school and middle school while the massive brush rages, according to a robocall from the school district.
The fire apparently began in the Pinewald section of Berkeley Township, an area heavily forested with scrub pines and oaks and prone to fires.
Northern Boulevard residents Robert and Joan Martinez stood in the street outside their home and listened to helicopters thundering overhead, making sweeps over the smoke.
The couple said despite the order to evacuate, they are staying put. They went through this before in 2002. Robert has five hoses and spigots which he said he can use.
"I've got my hoses," he said. "I'll put them on my roof. We are not leaving this house. They just told me I have to evacuate. I told them we cannot evacuate."
Conditions ripe for fire
A combination of gusty winds, very low humidity and dry woods led to the National Weather Service's "Red Flag Warning" alert today.
"The combination on windy conditions and low relative humidity values will lead to a more rapid spread rate of any fires that may develop," according to the alert on the NWS website.
The strongest winds - with gusts up to 30 miles per hour - were late this morning and into the early afternoon. The relative humidity values are in the teens and 20s.
A "Red Flag Warning" means that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now or will shortly, the NWS said.
"Any fires that develop may quickly get out of control and become difficult to contain," according to the alert.